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Bradley Professor: Debate ‘Spectacle’ Raises Concerns

AP Photo/Morry Gash, Pool
President Donald Trump points as Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden listens during the first presidential debate Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, in Cleveland, Ohio.

The combative and chaotic tone obvious during Tuesday’s presidential debate raises concerns about the future of the country’s political system, according to a Bradley University professor.

Political science professor Megan Remmel said while it’s easy for viewers to get “wrapped up in the showmanship and spectacle” displayed by President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden, the incumbent’s behavior is alarming.

“There were a lot of comments that (Trump) made that were really concerning to me as a political scientist,” said Remmel. “There’s a fair amount of research coming out of other countries that says that a lot of the things that the president has said, and a lot of the things that the president is doing, are signs of a democracy in decline.”

Remmel pointed to Trump’s failure to denounce white supremacy and his seeming unwillingness to accept a potential election defeat as particularly troubling “in terms of a democratic health perspective.”

But she said it’s unlikely either candidate did anything to sway voters.

“I don't think if you’ve been paying any attention to politics for the last four years that last night should have been all that incredibly surprising to you,” said Remmel. “So I don't think last night changed anybody’s minds; I don’t think if you were a Trump supporter, now you’re not, or if you were Biden supporter, now you’re not. I think people are pretty locked in at this point.”

Remmel said that in some ways, Democrats and Republicans growing further apart is a good thing because it provides a clearer distinction for voters.

“It’s a clear sign to voters about the distinction between what the Democratic Party is, and what the Republican Party is. So if you’re a voter and you see a ‘D’ or and ‘R’ behind the candidate’s name, you have a better idea of who is probably the best fit for you,” she said, noting a person’s party affiliation has become a sort of social identity.  

“So there are some benefits to this. But obviously, in terms of the stability angle, in terms of the complacency that people have, in terms of just expecting the worst from their politicians--that’s not great for democratic health.”

Remmel said the lack of civility shown on the debate stage is upsetting and unnecessary.

“I think you can be passionate in your discussion and you can have pronounced policy differences with people, but not go after each other like they did last night,” she said, “where President Trump was saying Joe Biden should never call himself smart, and Joe Biden was calling President Trump a clown to his face. That’s not productive.”

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Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.